I was a 17-year-old face in the crowd of 250,000 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his immortal sermon at the 1963 March on Washington. I was standing so far behind the Reflecting Pool that I could barely make out the figures on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the historic words were an indecipherable echo.
It wasn’t until I watched the TV coverage of the event that I knew what King had said. And while I, like everyone else who has ever heard the speech, was moved by King’s soaring refrain — “I have a dream!” — that wasn’t the part that stuck with me.
Then, and even more now as a 67-year-old grandfather, I was more touched by an earlier passage in King’s address, the part in which he stressed the real purpose of what was, after all, a march for jobs and freedom, not some vague notion of racial equality:
“We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ “
Fifty years later, we are still waiting for that check to clear.
We have come a long way since the March on Washington, but not always in the right direction. The explosive growth in our economic and political power over the past 50 years has still left a huge number of our people trapped in the nightmare that is the opposite of King’s dream.
Achievements that would have been unthinkable when the great civil rights leader’s thundering voice boomed out across the national Mall have been realized. If King were making his speech today, demanding that that figurative check finally be cashed, a black president would be called on to find a response. But, as much as it pains me to say this, I’m afraid that his response would be that the account is still overdrawn and the debt will remain unpaid.
I believe, with the full benefit of 20-20 hindsight, that our dilemma stems from a lack of strategic thinking about the full consequences of our strides toward freedom. Over and over again during the past 50 years, our leaders have failed to foresee the unintended consequences of our success.
We failed, for example, to find ways to shore up the black-owned businesses we built up during the days of segregation so that they could compete against larger, better-funded white-controlled corporations once the protective niche provided by American apartheid had disappeared. We didn’t devise strategies for making sure that all of our children got a good education once the white students — along with many of those from the burgeoning black middle class — were withdrawn from inner-city public schools. We still haven’t come up with an effective response to the conservative backlash that has turned President Barack Obama into a lame duck less than a year after his triumphant election to a second term.
One thing will be painfully clear today when Obama steps up to the podium to answer the demand that King issued a half-century ago: The colorblind, lift-all-boats approach to social policy that the president has been forced to adopt just doesn’t work. Although conservatives routinely stigmatize the notion of government action that specifically addresses the plight of impoverished people of color as playing the race card, it has become increasingly clear that the damage done to many of our people by 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow and the devastating economic shifts that we are living through in the wake of the civil rights movement was much crueler than we imagined.
It’s no accident that the median wealth of black families is 20 times less than that of white families or that the average income of black families is only half that of white families. It’s no accident that there is still a yawning chasm between the educational achievement of blacks and whites. These inequalities are the direct result of centuries of explicitly racist social policies whose consequences cannot be wiped out by simply declaring an official end to racial discrimination.
Like Europe after World War II, much of black America remains in need of massive reconstruction. But all too often we’ve failed as a nation to recognize that those needs required special attention and a commitment of several generations. As President Lyndon Johnson observed in 1965: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
It’s been way too long since we heard a president, including Obama, make such a frank declaration about the nation’s need to redress its legacy of racial oppression. More important, LBJ followed up with specific policies to address the inequalities that he decried. He had a plan.
Obama has shied away from the issue of racial inequality except when circumstances such as the Trayvon Martin case compelled him to take it on. He faces extraordinary opposition in Congress and has no effective means of defanging it. Until and unless we give him a Congress he can work with, he’s hamstrung.
I expect another lofty exhortation from Obama today about the need to recommit ourselves to reaching the promised land, with few specifics about how we’re supposed to get there. We need some serious plans for addressing our nightmare, not the same old dream.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.